DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Just five months ago, Denny Hamlin could barely get in his race car at his home track in Richmond without first stopping at the care center for treatment on his aching back.
His season had officially slipped away that night as Hamlin failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field for the first time in his career. He walked gingerly from the care center, in front of all his friends and family, set on finishing the year despite the fractured vertebra that had derailed his season and was causing him so much discomfort.
That dogged determination — in his rehabilitation, in the gym, with Pilates instruction, sitting in ice baths — eventually helped him turn a corner. He was feeling substantially better by the end of the season, when he won his only race of the year in the finale at Homestead. But it gave him momentum into the offseason and resolve to make 2014 his year.
His win in last Saturday night’s exhibition Sprint Unlimited was a statement for Hamlin and for anyone who doubted he couldn’t return from his injury.
“Any questions?” he asked as he crossed the finish line.
Hamlin heads into Thursday night’s twin qualifying races — he’s in race No. 2 — as a driver on a mission. He’s out to prove he’s a threat to win the season-opening Daytona 500 on Sunday and maybe even the Sprint Cup championship.
“I realized after the win in Homestead, how I was feeling, that we run as good as I feel,” Hamlin said. “When I feel comfortable in the car, I can do just about anything I need to do to be a race winner. You don’t like to talk about what you’re going to do — I’d like to just show what we can do.”
Hamlin missed five races a year ago with his injury, suffered when he crashed racing Joey Logano for the win at California. He had to sit out four full races and watch from his pit box, then started at Talladega but got out of the car at the first pit stop.
Hamlin’s plan was to try to rally and make the Chase. But his aching back hampered his performance and it ended up as the worst season of his career.
Since arriving in Daytona a week ago, he has made it very clear he is only looking forward.
“You’re always excited about starting the season, but for me it was more about really starting the season strong, to just totally forget about 2013,” he said. “I’m sure the questions will always continue. I don’t want any more questions about last year, but I understand they’re still going to be coming. It’s just I don’t want to relive it. It was a horrible year, definitely a year that you choose to forget.
“But obviously this is huge motivation and confidence that we can do a lot of great things when all the pieces fall right for us.”
Kyle Busch, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, has noticed a difference.
“Denny is on a mission,” Busch said. “I think he lost too much time last year sitting on the sidelines, so he’s got some wins to make up for. He’s on fire right now. He’s good. He’s fast. He’s ready. He keeps saying he feels good.”
Hamlin knows he needs to temper his excitement for this new year and not let Daytona dictate too much. He’d love to open the year with a victory — it would essentially lock him into the Chase under the new format — but superspeedway racing won’t translate into next week when the season begins in earnest and he’s truly tested.
“Physically I feel like I can be better than I was before,” he said. “I feel as good physically in the car over the course of long runs, better than I have for I can’t even remember, probably rookie season, maybe. But the realist in me knows this is superspeedway racing. Once we get to the other tracks, three, four races down into the schedule, I’ll know where we stand as far as are we fully back to ourselves.”